Competition – Christopher Nuttall
*Yes, I do remember I’m in the middle of a novel plotting workshop. But today is a really bad day, as I won’t be home till late. Fortunately I had a very good guest post waiting just such an emergency!*
Competition – Christopher Nuttall
Let me start with a modern-day parable.
Jill is the champion runner at High School – she leaves everyone else in the dust. One day, a newcomer – Jack – arrives and proceeds to beat her at her own game. Humiliated, feeling that she cannot improve her own performance, Jill goes to the coach and complains that Jack has an unfair advantage over her. The coach buys whatever argument she puts forward and insists that Jack tie his shoelaces together before starting the race. So, on the second race, Jack falls on his face while Jill races ahead …
… And, on the third race, Jack carefully ties his shoelaces together, then takes off his shoes and runs barefooted.
All right, Jill is Big Publishing, Jack is Amazon and the coach is every government regulator who can be convinced/bribed/threatened into enacting laws to uphold the status quo.
It’s natural, when you are at the top of your game, to fear and resent an up and coming new challenger. Everyone who reaches the very highest levels is afraid that someone stronger, smarter or simply more talented than themselves will come along and take their crown. Jill would probably not have disliked Jack so intensely, let alone set out to ruin his chances, if she hadn’t seen him as an irredeemable enemy. And Big Publishing hates Amazon with the intensity of a billion while hot burnings suns.
(All right, I exaggerate. A million white hot burning suns.)
The problem with Big Publishing (and Big Music, etc, etc) is that they settled into a comfortable pattern that didn’t include eBooks or self-publishing. Their system worked very well, for them; they might be in competition with other publishers, but they weren’t seeing any game-changing shifts in the publishing world. Each publisher faced the same hard limits as the others. Authors were very limited in what they could do about it, unless they were Tom Clancy-level popular; Big Publishing used its dominance of the marketplace to keep the authors in line.
The internet and Amazon changed that, for reasons discussed before. Kindle not only gave the publishing world a whole new format to enjoy, it allowed thousands of new authors (such as myself) to bypass the traditional gatekeepers and put our works in front of the public. The stigma attached to self-publishing, which made a great deal of sense even a mere fifteen years ago, vanished. And Big Publishing hated it. Their readers demanded eBooks (and books were pirated when they weren’t legally available), while their authors saw a way to escape from their shackles.
But Big Publishing (with the exception of Baen Books) had lost the ability to adapt to game-changing shifts in the market. While Amazon and a host of small publishers surged ahead, Big Publishing tried its hardest to alternatively pretend that nothing had changed and trip Amazon up as much as possible. The results have been disastrous – for Big Publishing. Amazon is simply more adapted to the current conditions than any of the big publishers (again, Baen is an exception) and they have sacrificed the goodwill of millions of readers on the altar of refusing to recognise that the times they are a changing. They have forgotten the cardinal rule, when it comes to publishing, that the reader is always right. It is no longer possible to put out a book that ticks all the right boxes and expect it to do well. Nor is it possible to charge hardback prices for eBooks and expect to earn anything when outraged readers turn to piracy.
There is a strong anti-Amazon argument, put forward by Big Publishing and authors who are too closely tied to the big companies to break free, that left unhindered, Amazon will eventually become a monopoly. It certainly does dominate the EBook market. (None of the other eBook providers have anything like the reach of Amazon.) But part of the reason Amazon dominates the eBook market is, as I noted in my earlier article, is because it understands the value of eBooks and provides a platform for simple and straightforward self-publishing. Amazon has neatly bypassed the problem facing traditional publishing – that every author must be invested in by the publisher, which causes problems when that investment is not recouped – by reducing the companies costs to the bare minimum.
Indeed, I have no way to know for sure, but I would bet good money that Amazon Kindle actually makes some pretty solid profits.
It also has another advantage. Amazon can use Kindle to determine which works actually sell, then use those figures to offer writers better deals. In effect, Amazon has removed the gamble from the publishing industry. They can spot a self-published writer with a major following and give him a somewhat more traditional publishing contract. Big Publishing is reluctant to sign on new writers because there’s no way to be certain their books will sell. Amazon can tell who can sell books by allowing them to test the waters, at minimal cost to Amazon.
A fear shared by a number of indie authors is that, eventually, Amazon will grow so powerful that it will start to demand a bigger share of the profits from kindle books. Long arguments have already been written over the pros and cons of Kindle Unlimited – and fears have been aired, in many places, that eventually participation in the KU program will become mandatory. I suspect, based on my observations when KU first came online, that those fears are groundless (Amazon earns more from my books when they don’t join the program) but I could easily be wrong.
But the real question is just what Big Publishing can do about it.
The current Big Publishing model is simply unsustainable. Historically, publishers have done more than just print books and take most of the profits; they have provided editors, cover designers, marketing, etc. Now, I – a self-published author – can have all of those for minimal expense. An established author, looking in dismay at the steady erosion of sales and services from Big Publishing, has a great deal of incentive to go indie himself. He will look at his backlist, out of print because of ironclad contracts written before the eBook age, and grind his teeth in frustration when he looks at pirate sites and sees his otherwise unobtainable books available, for free. His inbox will fill with the ranting of his fans, who may love him but aren’t going to pay hardback prices for an eBook, or screams of outrage about DRM-heavy files that are practically unreadable. (Or insults directed at the idiot who edited his book; I’ve noticed a steady decline in editing standards over the last few years.)
And when he complains to his editor (who may not be the person who signed him) he will be told to STFU. I predict that Big Publishing will see a steady exodus of authors over the next decade or so, if nothing is done to stem the flow.
Saving Big Publishing – and preventing Amazon from gaining a complete monopoly, as monopolies are dangerous things – will require a complete reworking of the business model. (I leave the argument about this being a good thing or not to someone else.)
First, Big Publishing needs to put their professional authors first. These are no longer the days when authors can be practically enslaved by ironclad contracts. I’ve heard enough horror stories from older pros to make me very wary of signing a contract with any big publisher (except Baen). It is probably unreasonable to expect 70% profits from hardback/paperback publishing deals, but publishers should make sure that authors receive a reasonable profit.
Second, Big Publishing should take a long hard look at the prices for eBooks. As I noted here, production costs for eBooks are minimal and hardback prices are unjustifiable (and serve as nothing more than an incentive to piracy).
Third, Big Publishing should set up its own version of Amazon Kindle.
Oddly, Big Publishing is in a position to set up a rival system that actually has a chance of competing on even terms. Big Publishing owns the rights to thousands of novels readers would like to see in e-format, after all. But there are limitations in the kindle system – MOBI files, for example – that would give Big Publishing an in. Amazon’s reporting system is infinitely better than any publishers, but it does have its problems. I’d like a system that told me just how many copies I’d sold of a particular book without forcing me to add them all up manually.
Another prospect for profit (and Amazon could do this too) lies with artwork. Searching for book cover artists occupies a considerable amount of time. Setting up an e-cover site would be a great boon for both writers and artists.
But the temptation to meddle would always be there.
You see, prior to the internet, book reviews weren’t crowd-sourced. It was hard, very hard, to get an objective review of a book. Amazon, again, bypasses the gatekeepers. Paid hacks might praise whatever work of liberal art Big Publishing might have allowed into print, but ordinary people might take a more sceptical view. Amazon does everything it can to uphold the integrity of its review system – some people say it goes too far – and rarely deletes a negative review. They can afford to allow it because, in the end, Amazon is mainly a middleman. Big Publishing will face considerable temptation to do otherwise.
I don’t know if these ideas will ever be used – I don’t know if Big Publishing is capable of adapting any longer – but they are food for thought. It is competition that drives us forward …
… And Big Publishing has forgotten how to compete.